My earliest memories of growing up in the faith do not revolve around my parish church in Fairhaven, but rather are centered on the Shrine of St. Anne. From a very young age I remember traveling with my parents to Fall River to attend the Sunday 3 p.m. novena service. Led by the Dominican priests who served the shrine I recall singing these words:
To that shrine most holy for more than ninety years
St. Anne, e’re welcomes us with our hopes and fears
O Good Saint Anne, we call on your name,
Thy praises loud, thy pilgrims proclaim!
To all who invoke thee, now lend us an ear,
Thou soothest the sorrows of all who draw near.
The weary, despondent, or sorrowful, here,
Find help in their sadness, a balm for each tear.
The sick, the afflicted, the lame and the blind,
The suffering, the erring, all solace here find.
At the novena service, the Eucharist would be exposed on the altar and the members of the congregation would pray the chaplet of St. Anne. Between each Hail Mary the priest would intone: Jesus, Mary, Annel and the response was always: Grant us the favors we ask.
By the time the scripture readings, prayers and homily were concluded a cloud of incense filled the sanctuary. With the monstrance enveloped in holy smoke it looked to a 4-year-old like God had descended from the heavens and was present mystically with us. The service always concluded with a procession around the church interior along the ambulatory chapels that radiated around the sanctuary.
An elderly man carried a beautiful image of St. Anne in the procession. As we walked we sang a hymn with the refrain Laudate, Laudate, Laudate Anaum. After circuiting the church everyone approached the altar and venerated the relic of St. Anne and gathered around her image in prayer. Behind the statue, which in those days was to the front left of the altar, were numerous crutches, more so, than the small number on display today.
Our family visit usually concluded with a visit to the religious store, and with some prodding on my behalf, my father purchased for me some small medal, holy card or statue.
Over the years, my visits to the shrine continued. Whenever I found myself in Fall River for any reason I always stopped at St. Anne’s to pray before the images of the saints and before the Blessed Sacrament. I cannot recall the numerous times I venerated the images of St. Anne, along with St. Jude, the patron saint of Hopeless Causes. Many prayers were offered to St. Gerard Majella, the patron of expectant mothers on behalf of those who were expecting or having difficult pregnancies. To St. Joseph, the patron of a happy death, I entrusted the names of family and friends who were passing from this life to the life to come. Even after moving to Rhode Island, I continue to visit the shrine regularly.
Over the years as I watched portions of the building deteriorate, I kept hoping that the shrine and parish would be handed over to a religious order such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest or the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius. Any of these groups would have restored the high altar in the upper church and worked at restoring the shrine. Unfortunately the former Dominican priory behind the church had been turned into low income housing, leaving the issue of where would a group like this live?
And now, the doors will be locked forever at the end of this month. St. Anne’s shrine, so unique to Fall River because it wasn’t just a parish church, but a shrine which remained open all day long for people who wished to offer their prayers to Almighty God and His saints, will be gone forever. It remained one of the few places where one could actually light a real candle, not an electronic one. It was a place where the laity led the rosary, the Stations of the Cross and participated in the offering of the Mass.
In my opinion, the loss of the parish is devastating to the parishioners but also distressing to those who have prayed as pilgrims in this church for all these years.
What will become of the holy objects found therein? Where will the relics of St. Anne and St. Concorde go? Will the sanctuary items and statues be sold off to antique religious goods companies as has happened elsewhere? (For example, the sanctuaries of both St. Hedwig’s and St. Casmir’s churches in New Bedford were available for a long time on eBay.) Devout Catholics, if you want to see where the items your relatives donated to churches over the years have gone from closed churches, simply do a Google search for “used church items” and you will find a number of companies that specialize in tearing out altars, stained glass windows and statues. Sadly, I can still remember my mother saying it was wrong to sell holy things. But it is all about the money, is it not? And now there is talk of creative reuse of the building, but if you can’t keep it open to serve the purpose for which it was built, I would rather see it razed to the ground.
We have already lost so much of the patrimony left to us by our spiritual ancestors. The loss of St. Anne’s Church and Shrine is yet another nail in the coffin of my Catholic upbringing.
St. Anne, forgive us!
Manuel M. Medeiros
Greenville, Rhode Island